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Speaking Our Minds

I am becoming concerned about the preservation of our essential freedom, particularly as it relates to freedom of speech. It is a phenomenon that has become more obvious as we have struggled to deal with militant Islamism in recent times. It is something not only experienced in Australia, but throughout out the Western world.

My point of view is informed by the advice that the good Dr Phil gave me once. He said, “There are no bad people, only people with bad ideas.” Accordingly it is imperative that we should vigorously confront and debate those ideas we deem “bad”.

I need at once to make the disclaimer that I am not naïve enough to believe that all those with bad ideas can be reasonably convinced of the errors of their ideas. When our essential sense of self is closely connected to those ideas then conflicting points of view will not be heard. The ego will not allow it. But surely this should not stop us from attempting to illuminate, clarify and debate our ideas and beliefs. Is not the essence of a free society that we should seek to know and be informed by the best ideas? There are not many things that we can be perfectly sure about and it is normally a sign of our ignorance if we maintain an infallible certainty about the things we believe in.

Although this was in a different context, I guess the alarm bells rang for me with the prosecution of Andrew Bolt under the Racial Discrimination Act. The judges found Bolt guilty because material he posted on his blog site could have been construed as causing people to take offense. Whether you are a Bolt supporter or not (and I must confess I am not very familiar with his material at all) this should have raised concerns.

Surely our freedom is dependent on being able to have robust debate about controversial issues. Those who have an inadequate sense of self might well choose to be offended when some of their core beliefs are challenged. But what sort of free society would forbid those beliefs to be challenged on that basis?

Even more so, taking (or perhaps confecting) offense and outrage should never prevent open and transparent discussion on critical issues. Why should we be afraid of hearing dissenting opinions if we want to make informed decisions? Many of those whose opinions I might want to challenge can merely call “foul” when I say things they don’t want to hear. Of course this always suggests to me that their beliefs are not built on very sound foundations if they are not prepared to hear a dissenting point of view.

And now in the name of national security the government is attempting to put in place legislation that will prevent militant Islamists from placing their ideas in front of the Australian public. I can’t believe this is in any way helpful. We should certainly draw the line when they are inciting people to commit acts of violence but the best way to counter their deluded ideas is to demonstrate the errors of their beliefs in open debate.

It is almost impossible to shield our citizens from the outrageous propaganda from such people because of the pervasiveness of the internet and social media. They will continue to be heard no matter what action the government takes.

In the end we are faced with a battle of ideas. Short of allowing them to incite violence, it is surely helpful to have the Islamists expose their radical ideas for public scrutiny. Unfortunately we handicap ourselves in this process. Whilst we have to date allowed the radicals free reign to promulgate their misguided and outdated propaganda, we shy away from frankly rebutting their arguments on the basis that we might offend somebody and this behaviour has been aided and abetted by the court’s decision in the Bolt case!

Fifteen hundred years ago, an illiterate man called Muhammad purportedly dictated a text which has become known as the Koran. The text, like its Christian counterpart the Bible, is replete with contradictions and errors, but nevertheless has formed the core of the belief system of Muslims around the world. Muhammad, with little substantiating evidence, claimed to be Allah’s prophet.

Those familiar with the Koran know that the tenor of Muhammad’s teachings changed with his circumstances. Earlier in his career he lived in Mecca where he faced a good deal of hostility. During this time his teachings were more moderate and accommodating of competing points of view. Later he moved to Medina where he quickly developed a power base and was able to overcome his critics in Mecca. From then on his teachings became more strident and immoderate. The intolerance of other belief systems and the call for violence against the kaffirs (unbelievers) which the Islamists now emulate come from this period.

The Islamists seem hell bent on taking Islam’s most extreme, belligerent, sexist and intolerant teachings and basing their aspirations, as reflected in Sharia law, on them.

Now you could accuse me of intolerance and Islamophobia for promoting such a point of view. If you do so the first thing I can assure you is that I am not going to take offense! I am not going to avoid the debate by confecting personal hurt. Secondly I would also assure you that if some ratbag fundamentalist Christian sect tried to impose on us their distorted value system I would oppose it just as vehemently.

In essence this is a battle of ideas. It behoves me to quote again the good Dr Phil who assures me there are no bad people only bad ideas. The Islamists are motivated by some very bad ideas and we should stand up and counter them. We avoid this confrontation of ideas because we have this politically correct notion that we shouldn’t offend others with different points of view, particularly about religion. It would be far better if we could win the debate in the newspapers, television current affair shows, lecture theatres and churches, synagogues , mosques and even the local pub,  than have to win the wars that such erroneous beliefs create.

But it is important that we not allow the debate to be manipulated by faux emotional boycotts. It is easy to see these at play. Take the issue of the wearing of burkas. Some people are saying that offends them. What a load of rubbish! I can’t believe that what someone wears could offend somebody. If women choose to wear such clothing they should be allowed to. But if they are compelled by their menfolk to do so we should take umbrage. Those that say they are offended are only seeking to use emotional blackmail to modify the behaviour of others without the need for substantiating rationale. Some people say they are offended by Tony Abbott wearing his speedos. Again, what a load of rubbish! That is the preferred attire of many volunteer lifesavers and nobody takes offense when they’re seen on the beach. (Strangely nobody takes offence when he wears his voluntary firefighter’s gear!)

With respect to the burka we should listen to the advice of the ex-Muslim Somalian writer and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

“When I look at the burka, no doubt it is a symbol of oppression, but a burka ban is not going to get us anywhere.”

She continues.

“If your childhood is cut in half because you’re married off to some older person, or your genitals mutilated, or you’re forced into things you don’t really want, that is far more consequential to you as a woman and a society than a piece of textile covering your eyes and your face.”

This reticence to confront irrational fundamentalist beliefs is of course neither a uniquely Australian problem nor indeed even a recent phenomenon. The West has been sliding down this slippery slope for some time. In February 1989, the author Salman Rushdie became the subject of a fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran. The Ayatollah personally offered money for the murder of the author because of the publication of his work The Satanic Verses. Generously the Ayatollah not only offered a monetary reward but also a free ticket to paradise!

Christopher Hitchens, a friend of Rushdie wrote:

“It is impossible to imagine a greater affront to every value of free expression. The Ayatollah had not read, and probably could not read, the novel. But he succeeded in igniting ugly demonstrations among Muslims in Britain as well as across the world, where crowds burned the book and screamed for the author to be fed to the flames as well.

One might have thought that such arrogant state sponsored homicide, directed at a lonely and peaceful individual who pursued a life devoted to language, would have called forth a general condemnation. But such was not the case. In considered statements, the Vatican, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the chief Sephardic rabbi of Israel all took a stand in sympathy with – the Ayatollah. So did the cardinal archbishop of New York and many other lesser religious figures.”

We should have made a concerted stand in support of the freedom of speech but we buckled at the knees when confronted with Islamic fundamentalism and political correctness. Which is the greater sin, that a man should challenge the rigid belief systems of traditionalist Islam, or that because of that challenge he should be murdered? Most rational people would believe the latter. Let us try to get the fundamentalists to justify their aberrant ideas rather than shut down debate. We largely allowed the belief to be propagated that Rushdie had committed a gross offence and therefore deserved to be pursued in retribution. Whereas, in reality, his book was based on a reasonable interpretation of the history of Islam, but one that didn’t accord with what the fundamentalist, revisionists wished to portray.

And then of course there was the infamous Danish cartoon controversy. In 2005 a Danish newspaper published 12 cartoons depicting Muhammad. This caused Muslims to take great umbrage. The eruption of religious insanity that subsequently occurred resulted in one of the cartoonists living in hiding ever since, after Muslims called for his murder in 2006. After the publication there were riots, embassies stormed and peaceful people were threatened with murder.

Again the Western response was to shy away from confronting an irrational belief system. Instead of criticising this despicable behaviour, Western governments sought to appease the misguided defenders of Muhammad. Can it be that Allah’s prophet was so insecure as not to countenance a different point of view?  Did he not have a sense of humour?  Was he so fragile that he couldn’t deal with the inevitable challenge to his preposterous claims?

So my advice to the government (not that I have had any great success in influencing it) is don’t gag the Islamist extremists, except to prevent them inciting people to violence. The more they rant the less credible they become. (Witness Emma Alberici’s robust interview with Wassim Doureihi on Lateline last week.)

But don’t also gag those who are prepared to take the argument up to them. Don’t deprive us of the wherewithal to argue against the worst aspects of a belief system initiated by a simple Arab camel herder and trader fifteen hundred years ago.

How can it possibly be argued that demonizing homosexuals, stoning adulterers, subjugating women, soliciting the murder of those who disagree with our beliefs, celebrating the exploits of suicide bombers and so on advances the cause of society at large?

As things now stand we are happy to give the dysfunctional extremists a platform to espouse their depraved points of view, but those who oppose them are constrained from responding because of nonsensical notions of political correctness on the off-chance the extremists might feel offended!

Wherever we can it is surely better to win the battle of minds rather than have to endure the barbaric acts of those devoted to a fundamentalist view of Islam. Accordingly, when those of a mind go out to counter the corrosive views of such folk don’t impede them by insisting that they not offend their opponents who in their extreme advocacy succeed in avoiding opposing points of view!

Let us then confront the fundamentalists with rational argument. Let us at least try to win the battle of ideas. But for goodness sake don’t constrain our freedom of speech so that it is unlawful to confront them with contrary arguments that they, poor insecure souls, might regard as offensive.

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  1. 2 Comment(s)

  2.   By Lynda Dowling on Oct 19, 2014 | Reply

    Well said Ted, my sentiments exactly, although I am not as capable of expressing my thoughts as you it would seem. For years now I have been shut down by family in particular, for saying such things as “I disagree with halal certification on my food without my permission” – and that was enough to be shut down with “racist bigot” and a good ‘blocking’ on facebook!! Therefore I am very careful about my opinions and words now, to family and friends, which is a shame. It certainly closes down robust debate about such things as the behaviour of Islamists dating back 1500 years ago – an ideology so old and confused yet followers today ruthlessly carry out barbaric beheadings to terrify and control the unbelievers. It staggers and astounds me, but dare not insult the prophet!! Those that silence you, control you, sadly, even now. Thanks Ted. Mind if I share??

  3.   By Lee swingell on Oct 19, 2014 | Reply

    Another thought provoking piece Ted. Helping radicalism embarrass itself into oblivion by offering it an audience and a stage for rational debate may indeed be the solution. There’s enough evidence that war won’t work.
    Youre the first to give voice to something that’s been on my mind for some time – who is this all-powerful being who creates worlds while possessing an ego so frail that it requires its followers to exterminate all who don’t celebrate its “glory”? The all-powerful while all-fallible contradiction embarrasses all flavours of religious zealotry.
    I agree that people should be able to move about in a free society wearing whatever they like – right up to point of faces being hidden from others. I have no proof of this, but I suspect that humans posess a reflex for interpreting faces based in some of the most ancient circuitry of the brain. When one sees a human form without a face, I suspect that that circuit gets confused momentarily and triggers a fight or flight response. The conscious mind arrests that reflex almost instantly, but in that split second of seeing a human form that from a distance resembles Darth Vader, I suspect many of us feel something other than love. If true, thats a cognitive archetype wired into the mind, which people should not be made to feel guilty about.
    I make this comment specifically about veils which cover the face – I have no objection for example to the scarves worn by Muslim women that cover the head and not the face (which are quite elegant in my opinion).

    It would be intetesting to read your opinions about the legal and administrative double standards emerging on this issue – such as the removal of full dace helmets when entering banks, and the dispensation given on religious grounds under laws that athiests get punished by (you might remenber the guy who had a fine waived by a Brisbane court after arguing that he was unable to wear a helmet while riding a bike because his reliion requured that he wear a turban).

    Thanks for writing.

    Lee

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